The 68th Workhouse
Kathy Gilbert (San Francisco State University, USA)
“To the Memory of Famine Victims 1845-1847 An Event Has Happened Upon Which It Is Difficult To Speak And Impossible To Be Silent.”
— Plaque on cemetery wall, Newmarket, Duthallow District
Potato blight in September.
Government led by Sir Robert Peel,
no pun intended; workhouse Master:
Mr. Savage, no pun intended.
breakfast for children over age five:
two and a half ounces of rice,
two and a half ounces of ‘peel’s brimstone’
one half pint milk.
Better than eating turnip skin.
So they came pretending not to be sick.
The Fever rampant.
Blight returns, new Monetarist
Government: absolutely nothing is for free
not even food for starving people.
No price reductions. Poor Law said
Workhouses were the refuge of idlers.
The work: breaking stone for 13 roads
Daily number of persons working the roads:
October: 114 able-bodied
November: 1559 able-bodied, 2 infirm,
39 women, 69 boys;
January: 6805, all ages.
Shops, mills and bakeries obvious targets.
In November a 3 ton load of wheaten meal
ambushed at Knocknageeha by a crowd
desperate for food; a few days later a convoy
of flour and wheat was attacked, same place.
Thieves were sentenced to Transportation.
(Steal a chicken, transport to Australia or Jamaica for life)
The walking dead, gaunt phantom figures.
Stench of death everywhere, from rotting potatoes,
decomposing bodies in hovels, street and field.
Dogs devour the half buried, rats attack
victims too weak to resist.
Whole families wait together
Last survivor earths up the door (to prevent
Ingress of pigs and dogs) before lying down in the vault.
Mass graves: a horse, a cart, a bell ringer
……………………..Bring your dead
They too weak to cry the gol, in waves:
the final part of the keen
sung from very low to very high.
Lifting to the liminal state.
This history of Seanchas Duthallow
explains why your grandfather kept his attic
full of bags of flour, just in case.
Why we never wasted a scrap of food
Even if it was turning – just cut around it,
why girls get yelled at for peeling potatoes’
skin too thick. Why we have so few
tears to cry except for the dead
when the keen racks nine waves in oceans of grief
Kathy Gilbert, a graduate student in the MFA program at San Francisco State University, drove a SF Municipal bus for three years after graduating from Cornell University. Her interests include language, history, and political science. Twice first place winner in the SF Browning Society Monologue contest, she resides in the fog belt of Daly City, California with her son, Eli. To relax, she swims.